Starkers

As much as it is measured by affection, success is too often measured by hate. Hate proves a useful metric because it allows writers to test how successful they’ve been, positioning their selves on one side of the political divide. How much the Right or Left hates you often reflects how much the other side cherishes your work. Hate is often the proud boast of the properly successful political writer; unless you’re J.K. Rowling, of course, once much loathed by the Right and now much loathed by the Left. Which neatly leads me into today’s rant about Starkers, the nation’s least favourite racist house elf…

David Starkey is feeling the loathing today — dropped by both publisher and universities — after he claimed that “slavery was not genocide, otherwise there wouldn’t be so many damn blacks in Africa”. It was an awful thing to say, even if the thrust of his argument was correct.

The word “genocide” does indeed refer (and only refer, according to the OED) to “the deliberate and systematic extermination of an ethnic or national group”. Slavery was not genocide in the very strict sense, no matter many Guardian column inches are wasted today arguing the opposite. That doesn’t, however, mean that slavery wasn’t “genocidal” and that treating people as a resource wouldn’t have led to the eventual decimation of a people. That is a very human instinct. We kill animals to extinction, plunder resources until there are none left. Slavers didn’t care a whiff about the plight of the people they traded. Countless numbers died during the journey but slavers also wiped out families, tribes, villages, and towns. But Starkey wasn’t talking about that. What he said was that “slavery was not genocide”. In those limited terms, he was correct.

Yet Starkers couldn’t just bang in the easy goal. He had to run off down the touchline screaming about the “damn blacks in Africa”. It makes my ears bleed by retyping that. If you wanted to say something that sounds exactly like the vile racism of England in the 1970s, it would involve the phrase “damn blacks” and mentioning that there were so many of them.

His defenders will no doubt launch counteroffensives, claiming that he was right about the first point and that the “damn” was merely for emphasis but Starkey does this too often or, perhaps, it would be correct to say, he does it “just enough”. He does it just enough to be the “bad boy” of academia. If you were a right-wing agitator with a new channel to launch, what better man than Starkers to push you into the headlines? If your channel is called “Reason”, then isn’t this the kind of provocative argument you’d want to engender? Hey, snowflakes! If only you used reason then you would prove it’s a perfectly normal thing to say… Pull it apart and look at its constituent parts, they’d say. Then it’s all sensible.

I’ve written quite a bit, recently, about how symbols are appropriated by different clans and, here, we’re at it again. Last year it was “Liberal” – adopted by any right-wing loon howling at the moon – and this year it’s going to be “Reason” being mugged by anybody who thinks it’s either clever or funny to say something offensively provocative. The Right giggle with glee when the Left gets triggered and the Left get triggered because… well… what Starkey said was unquestionably racist.

And yes, I did write “unquestionably”. There were ways he could have mitigated the thing he’d said but he didn’t. “I phrased that poorly and I apologize” should have been the next words out of his mouth because “damn blacks” is egregious. If the “damn” doesn’t qualify “blacks” (dehumanising a race in exactly the same way that slavers once did) it was meant to emphasise their number, which is equally sickening. Yet Starkey gets away with it time and time again because he’s supposed to be free-thinking intellectual who words can’t be neutralised by a few liberal gasps.

Starkey is good at this because he knows the rules. He will be saved by the cavalry charge of English Boneheads, ready to defend every inch of ground. Just as the Left will condemn every word from his mouth, the Right will claim it’s protected speech, simply expressing “truth”. They won’t do what I’ve done here and balance the dictionary definition against language that was loathsome. It’s like the right-wing protestor who was urinating next to the memorial of the fallen police officer in London last month. Yes, it was wrong to say he was urinating “on” the memorial. He was to the side. Yet that shouldn’t have been used as a defence as it was by so many on the Right. Where did they think his urine went? Do they applause people micturating in the streets? Waving an EU flag is traitorous but pissing so very British?

This is the nature of so much political coverage and writers who achieve notoriety by being provocative. It’s as true about those on the Left as those on the Right. It’s more money in the bank and a bit more bad rep with which to sell books to either a traditionalist or a radical audience. And that’s essentially what this comes down to. Pick a market and prepare to sell your soul.

I guess that’s why I don’t really understand hate. I’ve never experienced it in huge amounts. Most of the pieces I write, I could easily come down on one side and make an argument but I choose not to do that. Take another story from yesterday. I could have written:

Stanley Johnson is the embodiment of a cruel elite who care so little for ordinary men and women in Britain that they betray them with their brazen indifference towards the rules. Where people sacrifice their freedom to stop the Coronavirus, StanJo flies off to his luxury pad in Greece, not just reminding most people that they can’t afford this luxury, but also spitefully exposing the lie that Brexit would affect all of us equally. He’ll be back playing the nation’s favourite uncle the next time this lot need our votes. Until then, hold all calls… He’s not in the office for any old hoi polli – which I’m sure Stanley could tell you is Greek for “suckers”.

Alternatively…

Stanley Johnson is the embodiment of Britain’s greatest quality: the freedom to do whatever the bloody well he pleases! There might be some beret-wearing plankton out there who disagree with his actions but, listen bozos, that’s because he’s brave enough to do what he wants and not what you tell him to do! If we all took as much responsibility for our own health, maybe the country wouldn’t be so scared to get a haircut. Wear a mask or don’t wear a mask; stay indoors or get some fresh air: it’s all down to you. Good luck, Stanley! Hope you enjoy your much-deserved break and let’s hope you return to a much more tolerant Blighty!

Okay, neither are sparking but I’m not going to waste time polishing the life out of this crap. The point is: I could write either. I could push this argument down the gentle incline of the bias shared by about 30-40% of the audience and make persuasive arguments, laced with just enough jokes to make them smile. The paying audience would never complain, no matter how dull and repetitive my articles were, so long as I remained inside the lines. [Cough cough, Hitchens, P.]

And I wish I could, but I don’t entirely agree with either of those arguments. I can see some truth in both but I’m in that awful middle where I’d properly write…

Stanley Johnson has again revealed where his son gets his cloth ear. Holiday in Greece in the middle of a pandemic: it looks terrible for the Prime Minister, though it’s important to stress than his father is not in government. He doesn’t have voters to please and isn’t up for re-election. Unless he broke the law, the story amounts to a great big “SO WHAT”. Yawn once and move on…

And moving on is exactly what I intend to do.

I’m drawing today, trying to make up for lost time, but also wrestling with whether I should post some new cartoons here or leave them for the ebook. I really don’t know what to do… I want to keep the blog ticking over but I worry that some visitors might be here for the cartoons, not my boring pontification.

I also intend to write a small addendum to my previous bit about Picard, now I’ve finished the series. And, yes, my energy levels are on the bounce. I’m feeling considerably better thanks to the new hayfever tablets and I haven’t sneezed in days. I’ve also just had a delivery of pasta so I can eat for a few more days. I yearn for pasta! It’s my favourite food. Can’t get enough of the stuff…

8 thoughts on “Starkers”

  1. Starkey is yet another example of why people should retire at 65, always thought he was bit of a twat to be honest. It’s interesting that slavery has now come to represent only the African slave trade, when in fact it has been inflicted upon and practised by every race on the planet at one time or another. Historians still eulogise the Roman “civilization” despite acknowledging that 40% of the population of Italy were slaves, subject to the same abuse as slaves the world over. Really, the whole of Europe has an axe to grind against the Italians on that basis. My grandad was used as slave labour down a salt mine in Poland by the Germans, regularly beaten and was 7 stone when he was liberated. That gave him a right to grievance, it doesn’t give me that right. People are right to fight against the injustices they face today but you can’t fight injustices that happened 200 years ago. If you fixate on the past you never move forward.

    I think unless we see social media and online content subject to the same restrictions and responsibilities as TV and publishing you will get to a point where everyone eventually picks a side based on who constitutes the greatest risk to them personally. If you go looking for people who hate you and what you believe in, you will manage to find them easily enough. Social media has taken that to the next level, you no longer need to look for them, the hate is dished up on a plate for you.

    1. All of what you said I agree with, though I think this controversy isn’t about historical slavery as much as modern noxious attitudes towards race, which Starkey seemed to embody. The internet means we’ve lost our cultural super-ego, leaving social media as pure id. Part of understanding the former (race) means coming to terms with the latter. I recognize as a white guy that I have no personal investment in any of these issues but I accept that’s part of the problem. It’s why I’m happy to cut a little part of my selfish self out of these debates, try to see things from a different angle. Starkey was so clearly annoyed at trying to explain *his* opinion that he couldn’t recognise how offensive he was being to others. For a historian, this inability to shift perspectives was quite shocking.

      1. He’s old, hence the inability. As a society we seem determined to ignore that peoples minds deteriorate beyond a certain point when experience no longer compensates for decreased brain function. Air traffic controllers are forced to retire at 56 for a reason. I got a 1st from a RG uni when I was 22, best student in the year. I’d get nowhere near now and I’m not even 50. Do I think my experience compensates, at the moment just about, not looking good for the future though.

        1. I think it’s entirely subjective and depends what you’re talking about. Air traffic control is a young man’s game (so it stocks trading etc.) but some people, often artists, do their best work when they’re older. Not sure Starkey’s problem is age-related. He’s always been prone to gestural thinking; loving a bit too much the wicked generalisation rather than the more sobre fact. Just did a quick search of the Times Archive and found him offending reads back in 1996: “I take offence at the article by David Starkey […] for making the assumption that Scots get drunk at any opportunity”. Sounds pretty typical, if you ask me. Probably linked to what you were talking about regarding media. Certain kinds of people get through doors quite easily and that’s especially true of any academic willing to make a bit of a spectacle of himself. Not to judge men who wear signet rings but it’s that kind of showy detail which says something about Starkey, imho.

          1. The list of people who did their best work in their 70’s will be a short one. Starkey has always liked annoying people, but he has notably always been nimble and stayed on the right side of what would see him sacked. Given the current climate, what he offered up in that interview was a career suicide note.

          2. No, you’re right. He did lose control. I thought the “damn” was probably more of a “damn, why won’t people understand this simple point” than anything to do with race but the effect was the same given the context of the argument, the degree to which he was oversimplifying things.

  2. Really liked the example of the way you could write a story on either side of subject. It’s how i feel often without the writing skill aspect.

    For a long time i followed people like owen jones and toby young and watched noveramedia etc to try and get what each side were saying on the issues. But it became too tiring i would read an article start to think this is making sensible points and then it would slide into factional point scoring.

    1. Ah, thanks. Appreciated.

      Most articles do that because there’s no money in saying “wow, these things are tough”. We have the media we deserve, I guess. I’m at the stage now where I expect certain people to disagree with me, which makes me feel better about my own stance. 😉

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